Playing The Silence: Leaving Space

Space. It surrounds everyone all the time, but most seem to forget about it. Musicians are probably the biggest “space hogs” except for something big and noisy like a city. In my opinion, the reason ukulele players and musicians are stealing – or taking up – the space is because they are afraid of it – they are not quite sure what lurks there in the space…

I think that space is a fear that takes time to overcome – especially onstage. A lot of people just ignore the fear, or don’t ever realize that it is a problem. It is a problem because music is made up of notes and silence – space. To ignore the space would be to ruin the song.

“Notes are just clever ways of getting from silence to silence”

There are some bands and artists that play “good” songs, but are totally missing the point because they don’t leave any space. I find this unstopping flurry of notes hard to listen to. No space = obnoxious, in my opinion.

Another thing to mention is that it’s hard to relish the silence when you are playing a solo set. That’s because you are the only one holding the song up. Again, what is there to be afraid of? Only you know what is coming next. Try and leave space where you can – breathing room.

Ukulele players can take some good lessons from vocalists. Listen to somebody sing. They can only sing so long and then they have to take a breath right? That breath is enough time for the space to catch up to the song (and guess what? The monster in the darkness didn’t appear!). B.B. King is someone everybody should listen to. He sings some great blues, but he also plays guitar like no one’s business. I think the reason his guitar playing has such an impact on people is because he leaves space – not just a little here and a little there, but gobs of it. If you listen, he really plays like his guitar has to breathe. Play, breathe, play, breathe…

Another one who has conquered his fear is Carlos Santana. There is lots of space in his playing. It may not be so much like a breath, but it’s there. He may solo for a good while, but he always stops and lets the silence in.

This is all a lot about silence, but in reality you don’t have to actually stop playing. You can leave a note ringing out and get the same feeling of silence. Sustain is not a great strong point of the ukulele, but it’s not useless ether. The note that rings might feel like it’s disappearing (gasp!!! Leaving room for the silence to creep in), but it’s really a good way to ease into that space. Just pretend that you have the whole feedback/sustain thing that Hendrix was good at going. If you make it believable, the audience will probably not notice that the note is actually gone and everyone is riding the void. This still counts as space!

Space creates tension. You can play all of the notes you want, but you will have a hard time pulling the audience into the song if you don’t leave room for them to jump in. Listen to Jake’s Live CD. He does a great job playing the audience with space (he didn’t use to do this).

When I went to see Santana live in Reno he let the audience into the first song after three notes. [plays air guitar and sings the first notes of “Jingo”] He just played those notes and let the third sustain and feedback for the longest time – 15+ seconds maybe. By then everyone in the audience had fallen into the void and he continued. I will never ever forget that.

In The Advancing Guitarist (fantastic book), Mick Goodrick makes a great visual point about silence:

Examples of “Effective Use Of Space”.

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3.                                                                                                      4.




By Brad Bordessa

I’m an ‘ukulele artist from Honoka’a, Hawai’i, where I run this site from a little plantation house in the jungle. I’ve taught workshops internationally, made Herb Ohta Jr. laugh until he cried, and once borrowed a uke to jam with HAPA onstage in my boardshorts. More about me

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